Why do we need the Scienceogram?
The Scienceogram takes a pretty unusual perspective on government spending. We’re surprised that it is unusual, because the idea behind it is very simple, but it really can bring home the relative sizes of numbers that are otherwise just incomprehensible figures ending in ‘-illion’.
Figures in the press and politics are often presented in a contextual vacuum. How does the £20m in additional tax offered by Starbucks fit into the national finances? What does the £110bn NHS budget mean, other than that healthcare is expensive? One way to compare these items is to look at them relative to one-another, but even then it’s hard to comprehend figures with so many zeroes while you’re still rubbing sleep out of your eyes. What we need is a system in which the individual numbers make sense: pounds per person per year.
It all started after we made the Cashogram, an analysis of UK government and personal spending tailored to the median full-time earner. The results were, in some ways, eye-openingly mundane; most of the £11,000 spent by the government on each of our behalves goes to rather predictable and basically laudable destinations like welfare, education and defence, and the biggest drains on personal purses are houses and cars.
One group of numbers struck us as particularly conspicuous by its meagreness, though: spending on science. We started to wonder how to square a £10 per person per year investment in cancer research with, say, nearly £200 per person in public funding on the Olympics, £600 per capita in dodged tax, or £300 per year for a typical mobile phone contract.
We decided to look deeper into what we spend on science, and think harder about the most relevant comparisons to it. Though it’s interesting to look at research funding compared to other items of government and personal spending, the really important comparisons are with the scale of the problems science seeks to solve.
The Scienceogram aims to raise awareness of these numbers, and make science funding a genuine political issue. Debate around the science budget is currently very small-c conservative: should we reduce the budget or just freeze it? When the issues are remote and the budgets are measured in billions, it’s easy to accept this. If policymakers and the public realised how small spending actually is, in relative and absolute terms, we might be able to have a proper debate about how much we should be spending on different areas of scientific research.